Have you seen Jeff Mangum? 

Neutral Milk Hotel's bandleader built a faith on the transcendent power of music. Then, when he needed it most, he gave up on it.

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"At 2 o'clock in the morning, all the drunks order pizza, and I was the only one in the store, so I was like, 'Come back here and help me throw this dough,'" Spillane says. "I just taught him how to put the sauce on the pizza. After about 45 minutes of that, it calmed down, and we went outside to smoke a cigarette and he said, 'Man, this job sucks. You should come with me to New York.'"

The next day, Spillane put in his notice and two weeks later caught a Greyhound headed for Koster's grandmother's basement/practice space/crash pad on Long Island. On weekends, they'd camp out at Koster's apartment in the city. "There was five of us, a dog, a cat living there, in one room, about the size of that van," Spillane says, gesturing at a faded crimson, full-size van sitting on his front lawn.

They spent most of that year opening for bands as heralded as Superchunk and as forgotten as the Supreme Dicks and Butterglory.

"Thinking about it now, I guess there were a lot of times that we had no money, and we were out in the middle of nowhere, and we were getting into fights because we didn't have any money and we were out in the middle of nowhere," Spillane says.

After the tours, Spillane eventually moved to Athens, where Mangum, his girlfriend Laura Carter, and Koster all lived with a handful of others in a rambling home on Grady Street. It's there that Mangum, strumming chords in the echo of the bathrooms, worked out much of the material for what would become Elephant 6's definitive statement -- In the Aeroplane Over the Sea -- a work lyrically inspired by Frank's life, death and re-birth. Other passages, Carter says, were phrases that had been trapped in notebooks for years, and still others were noun-verb splices that, added up, equaled what Magnet described as "a perilous landscape in which innocence must confront surreal dehumanization."

In the summer of 1997, when Spillane received Mangum's call from Denver where he and Schneider were already working on Aeroplane, it didn't take much to convince him to re-join Neutral Milk's players.

"He said he'd feed me and buy me cigarettes for however long it took," Spillane says. "So we ate rice and tofu with barbecue sauce on it every day for a month. We didn't do anything else then, except play a video game or two."

And work 14-hour days. Schneider and Mangum upgraded the production quality from Avery Island, even as the band ad-libbed its way through much of the music.

Schneider says Mangum arrived with the songs, but when the rest of the players showed up, everyone was free to try whatever they could pick up.

"I would generate a lot of ideas and record a lot of stuff, and most of the time, Jeff would veto it," Schneider says. "He would always have feelings. Like one night he dreamed about Tibetan monks chanting. The next day he said, 'I want to have something that sounds like the way that felt.'"

It proved, Schneider continues, a pressure-filled production. Mangum didn't want to hear anything that resembled anything he had heard before, even stylistically. He discouraged Schneider from using techniques and textures with which he was comfortable.

At the same time, Mangum didn't want to crowd Aeroplane with too many sounds.

"[He] has a real strong sense of what's cool, and for him, cool is very weird, like out of left field, like something you've never heard before on a record," Schneider says. "At the same time, because there was the restriction of not having too many things going on, it was important to make everything really special and neat."

The melodies were often the best parts of a series of different songs spliced together.

"He often would write songs that didn't go anywhere, or maybe he didn't think they went far enough, to a new level or whatever, and then he'd have that song, and then six months later, he'd write another song with a different melody," Carter says. "Well, eventually, he'd chop all those apart and rearrange everything, so that this melody was taken and put over here in this song."

During the recording, Schneider and Mangum were sleeping in rooms next to one another. Schneider's wife, Hilarie Sidney, would wake up in the middle of the night and hear her husband and Mangum talking in their dreams to one another through the bedroom walls, or Schneider calming his cohort during a nightmare.


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